Heading into the 2019 season, expectations are higher for Utah football than they have ever been during Utah’s time in the Pac-12 Conference. The Utes are the defending champions for the South Division and enter the season with the best odds of any Pac-12 South team to win the conference.
There have been very few seasons where expectations have been this high for the program before the season has begun. Utah is poised to have the team’s highest AP Poll Preseason ranking in history. The Utes have never been ranked higher than No. 18 to start the season. That will likely change when the AP Top 25 is released.
Even with the program receiving preseason respect for what feels like the first time ever, the Utes are still far from a perfect program. There are several questions that will need to be answered if the Utes are going to have a real shot at winning the Pac-12 this year. There is uncertainty about what new/old offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig will bring to the table. There is concern about Tyler Huntley, Zack Moss, and basically every skill position player staying healthy for the entire season. Plus, one cannot forget the challenge the defense faces of replacing several key secondary members from last season.
It is natural to worry about each of these question marks surrounding the Utes as they enter the season. All of them will discussed at length before the season starts, and all of them will have a huge impact on what the end result of this season will be.
In all the conversation this offseason surrounding the Utes’, there is one major flaw that routinely gets forgotten. It is perhaps Utah’s greatest flaw; it is also the team’s most baffling flaw. It is the fact that every single season, Utah manages to lose one incredibly dumb game in a way that is truly inexplicable.
Don’t get me wrong, Utah wins a lot of big games against better opponents each season. That is how Kyle Whittingham has made his money. But in recent history, the Utes have also managed to lose one game each season that they had no business losing in the first place. It’s as if the team showed up expecting a hand-to-hand street fight, but the other team came in throwing tridents all over the place, Brick Tamland style.
There’s been at least one of these games over the past five seasons. Each time, Utah has been a favorite entering the game, and then has played a confusing and frustrating game that has completely altered the trajectory of the season. Here’s a quick recap of the stupid games Utah has lost over the past five seasons.
2014: Washington State
Just the dumbest loss you may ever see in your entire life. Utah was up 21-0 at the end of the first quarter and 24-7 at halftime. They ended up losing the game 28-27 when Wazzu outscored the Utes 21-3 in the second half.
Travis Wilson had one of the most frustrating games of his career, throwing for only 165 yards against a defense that allowed 296 passing yards per game during the season. The normally strong defense allowed 495 yards on the day, their third-worst performance of the season, trailing only beatdowns by Oregon and Arizona. To add to the head scratching day, the Utes forced three turnovers and only gave the ball away once. This whole game makes no sense.
Washington State ended up finishing the season 3-9 and won only one other Pac-12 game when they defeated fellow awful team, Oregon State. Utah ended up finishing the regular season 8-4, ranked No. 23, and just outside of contention for a wide-open South Division. They naturally played in the Las Vegas Bowl, where they massacred Colorado State. The Washington State loss ruined a potentially special season based on how volatile and weird the Pac-12 South was that year.
It’s hard to think of a season more perplexing than the 2015 Utah season. Seldomly has the team reached such heights during the regular season, yet it all came to an end in an unfortunately familiar place: the Las Vegas Bowl.
If you recall, after four games, the Utes were ranked No. 5 in the AP Poll. By the midway point of the season, Utah was ranked No. 3. There are so many treasured memories from this season: defeating Jim Harbaugh in his first game as Michigan head coach, winning a close game against Cal when College Gameday came to Salt Lake City, and instituting the end of Oregon’s dominance with a massacre in Eugene.
However, that all came crashing down against Arizona. By this point, the Utes had been embarrassed by USC in Los Angeles and now sat at No. 10 in the polls. This was no big deal though, because with one loss, Utah was still a legitimate contender for the playoff. At the very least, the team still had firm control over the South Division.
That didn’t last long. The Utes lost 37-30 in double overtime when they traveled to Tucson. The loss came despite Arizona starting quarterback Anu Solomon leaving the game with nine minutes left in the fourth. The backup quarterback, Jerrad Randall, completed only one pass, a 25-yard touchdown to win it in the second overtime.
Utah had a chance to tie the game, but the team could only manage eight yards with their offensive possession. Ultimately, the loss dropped Utah into a tie with USC in the South, and the Utes would never overtake the Trojans. The Utes would lose another miserable game the next week, falling 17-9 to UCLA.
Despite going 9-3 during the regular season, the Utes didn’t play in the Pac-12 title game and instead ended up playing BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. It was a game Utah fans didn’t want to play in before it started, and a game BYU fans wished they weren’t a part of after the first quarter.
There were two dumb options for this season. Utah lost to Cal in the team’s fifth game of the season after being completely unable to score on first and goal from the Cal 2-yard line. The Cal defense was abysmal, but the Utes couldn’t get it done with the game on the line. However, there are two reasons this game was less of a dumb loss than Oregon. Utah was playing on the road against Cal, and Cal sucked slightly less than Oregon that season.
The Oregon game was the penultimate game of the regular season. Utah had climbed to No. 11 in the College Football Playoff Rankings, and with their last game coming against Colorado, they still had a chance to win the Pac-12 South.
Oregon was an absolute disaster during 2016. The Ducks were 3-7 coming into Salt Lake City. The team’s best win was against an Arizona State team that would finish 5-7. Mark Helfrich was assuredly going to be fired at the end of the season, and Oregon employed Brady Hoke of all people as their defensive coordinator (lol). Oregon had nothing left to play for that season. So, why wouldn’t they march into Salt Lake City and take down another promising Utah season?
The Ducks put up 575 yards on the Utes’ defense and scored three touchdowns in the final ten minutes to come from behind and win the game. The dagger came on a 17-yard touchdown pass from freshman Justin Herbert with two seconds left on the clock. It’s another game where it is difficult to comprehend how Utah walked out with a loss.
This game knocked Utah out of the South Division race, leaving it for Colorado to somehow win. The team had to settle for the Foster Farms Bowl, where they squeaked past Indiana and ended up No. 23 in the final AP Poll.
2017: Arizona State
The most mediocre season of the past five years also has one of the least dumb losses for Utah. Utah finished the season with six losses, but every one of them came against a team that made a bowl game. Stanford, USC and Washington all finished the season ranked. Washington State was ranked when Utah played them and finished the season with nine wins. When Utah lost to seven-win Oregon, at least the game was on the road.
That leaves only one option: Arizona State. Arizona State football has been the epitome of mediocrity for the past four seasons. That’s fitting based on the institution’s national reputation as a whole. While the school gets made fun of by every television show ever, the football program has given you no reason to remember it. In the last four seasons, Arizona State has not finished with more than seven wins or less than five wins. That’s the definition of a 2.0 GPA if I’ve ever seen one.
Maybe this overall sense of mediocrity is why Utah has been drawn to losing to Arizona State. The Sun Devils came to Salt Lake City after a 3-3 start. Utah had started the season 4-2. The Utes were 9.5-point favorite according to the oddsmakers. Well my friend, Utah got absolutely destroyed, losing the game 30-10. The offense turned the ball over four times and didn’t even score a touchdown until less than three minutes were left in the game.
It was an embarrassing loss at home against a team that should have been on equal footing with the Utes. Unfortunately, this trend continued in the following season.
2018: Arizona State
You can tell Utah as a program is improving when the team’s dumbest loss of the season is becoming more understandable and less of a travesty. Such was the case with the loss to Arizona State in 2018.
This time, the Utes traveled to Tempe to face the Sun Devils and entered the game ranked No. 16. With a 7-2 record for the season, the Utes only two losses came against the two best teams in the conference, Washington and Washington State.
Utah was in the game up through the third quarter. Then Tyler Huntley took a hit and broke his collarbone, forcing him out for the rest of the game and the rest of the season. Jason Shelly was forced into the first meaningful action of his career. The offense began to struggle and could only manage a field goal for the rest of the game.
Because of the injury to Huntley, and the fact that Utah was playing the second-best Pac-12 South team on the road, this loss is far more understandable than any of the previous seasons. That could definitely be considered a step in the right direction.
This was also the first dumb loss that Utah has had that the team has managed to recover from. The Utes didn’t lose for the rest of the regular season and won the South Division for the first time in program history. Granted, the Utes struggled in postseason play, but by then they had lost nearly every starting offensive skill player to injury. It was definitely the least dumb loss of all the dumb losses Utah has had these past five seasons.
Clearly, the Utes have a problem with dropping games to lesser opponents when the Utes really have no business losing. Part of that is talent level, and part of it is the way Utah plays football. All of these crappy losses came against Pac-12 teams that are notorious for putting up huge offensive numbers. These teams are Utah’s Achilles heel. Utah plays at such a methodical pace on offense that if the opposing team starts racking up points, the Utah offense will struggle to keep up and often has come up short.
Most of the time the defense is able to shut down teams like Arizona, but when the defense falters, the offense isn’t always there to pick the team up. That means one of two things will have to happen this year if Utah is going to avoid a dumb loss. Either the defense needs to play zero bad games, or the offense needs to be more consistent than in any previous Pac-12 season.
Both options are certainly possible. But the one that figures to put Utah over the top is if the offense is more consistent this season. With Huntley back from injury, Zack Moss returning for his senior season, and a new offensive coordinator, the Utah offense will be pivotal in determining the fate of this season. At the very least, the offense could finally prevent Utah from having a dumb loss during the year.
If you looked at Utah’s schedule right now, the Utes would be favored in at least ten of their first 12 games. The Utes will be underdogs to Washington and, depending on how you feel about each team, either Washington State or on the road at USC. If Utah only wins games in which the team is favored, that’s a ten-win season alone. There’s so much potential in this season, but it can only be reached if Utah finally overcomes its fatal flaw. The team just can’t afford to lose a game so inconceivably dumb it completely upends the rest of the season. Losing to bad teams from Arizona is dumb, it’s time for Utah to stop being dumb.